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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

With the Fourth of July holiday weekend behind us, many teachers are turning again to the task of curriculum-building for the upcoming school year and thinking about ways to get this fresh batch of students interested in studying Shakespeare.

Consider how it came to be that Americans over the centuries have so heartily embraced Shakespeare, an Englishman, as one of their own. Take this Henry David Thoreau quote, for instance:

“True, we have declared our independence, and gained our liberty, but we have dissolved only the political bonds which connected us with Great Britain; though we have rejected her tea she still supplies us with food for the mind. Milton and Shakespeare, Cowper and Johnson, with their kindred spirits, have done and are still doing as much for the advancement of literature, and the establishment of a pure and nervous language, on this as on the other side of the water.”

If you’re looking for some good history tie-ins, we have a fantastic online resource for you: Shakespeare in American Life.

This website and its accompanying radio documentary explore Shakespeare’s impact on the American identity, particularly in politics and the experiences of immigrants and minority groups; Shakespeare’s influence in the American classroom and the public arena; and Shakespeare’s abiding presence on stage and on screen.

In addition to all of this rich material, the Folger has provided lesson plans related to Shakespeare and American life, such as this one drawing connections between The Tempest and immigration patterns in American history.

Also, give a listen to the radio documentary, which is broken into three parts of an hour each; consider playing an excerpt for your students, having them take notes, and leading a discussion afterward.

 

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Until earlier this fall, I was clearly the one in love with words, literature, classrooms, teachers’ lounges, theatre.  Math and science not so much.  OK, so my grade in Biology as a college freshman was D.  Not so interested in photosynthesis. Still not the least bit interested in photosynthesis, but now I am crazily interested in archaeology and genetics.  I still am in love with words, literature, theatre, and classrooms.

But my world has gotten a lot wider and more wonderful.  And I have been brought to this place by the divinely cramped up and misshapen corpse of that devilish king, Richard III.

In August 2012, the University of Leicester (in central England) began one of the most ambitious archaeological projects ever attempted:  a search for the lost grave of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle.

Image Credit: University of Leicester

Image Credit: University of Leicester

Here at the Folger, we have just had the great honor and huge pleasure of hosting Dr. Turi King and Dr. Mathew Morris, the geneticist and archaeologist who respectively made the DNA match and led the dig.

Their story is thrilling—intense, historical, modern, gut hunches, scientific data. It’s also a story about smart people doing smart, smart work against the odds. Turi says that at the beginning, it was a little like a missing person’s story: King Richard is missing and we’re putting together all that is known now, so we can go off to find him. She also says that, at the outset, they felt their chances of finding him were past slim. (more…)

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Last night, I sat in on the first preview for Folger Theatre’s new production of Twelfth Night. The romantic, knotty nature of the play was brought out in the production, and I, along with the rest of the very packed house, found myself enjoying the whole play anew. And then Feste (for not many companies cast a Fabian if they don’t have to) uttered one of my favorite lines in this play:

“If this were played upon a stage now, I could 
condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

It’s just such a wonderful, inclusive, self-aware joke. And because I’ve seen him so often in these self-aware parts, Louis Butelli has become my face of Will Shakespeare for the present, and I can almost see him creating that line 400+ years ago.

Mike LoMonico has said, and it’s true, that it’s not necessary to teach a biographical background in order to teach Shakespeare’s plays. You don’t need to know about Elizabethan life or stage practices to enjoy and explore the text, though instances for dropping in facts as they come up do arise. As a sometimes actor, I love finding these moments of player-hood in the text. This line in Twelfth Night, Hamlet’s speech to the tragedians, Henry V‘s apologetic Chorus, and – most especially dear to my heart – all of the mechanicals’ scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I’ve made it no secret that these terrible rustic actors are my favorites in the whole canon. Each festival season I fervently pray to see as many renditions of this play-within-a-play as there are schools to perform it. I even tried to get my wedding party to perform Pyramus and Thisbe at my wedding (they talked me down from that ledge). I love these players for throwing themselves whole-heartedly into their art, and committing to it despite lacking talent and means.

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

Recently, Carol Ann and I were left in charge of another school visit, and having discussed our mutual appreciation for Quince’s ragtag team, and Mike’s suggestion of dropping in facts as they came up, we decided to test out an activity for the students that combined Shakespeare’s Text with some player background, discussion, and history- to try to paint a larger picture, so to speak, as they came up in the mechanicals’ scenes in Midsummer. After a brief introduction to what an Elizabethan Theatre would have felt like, we used clips from the following scenes:

Act 1, Scene 2

(line 11) Quince tells his assembly what play they will produce: “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” What kind of play does an audience want to see? What does this title make you think of?

(line 20) Quince assigns the roles in the play. Bottom asks if Pyramus is “a lover or a tyrant?” You were likely to see many plays about kings and lovers much of the time. Try to pick out Shakespeare’s plays that aren’t about either subject, how many do you have?

(line 45) Francis Flute protests playing a woman – on the Elizabethan stage, women’s roles were played by young men and boys.

(line 75) Why are the players concerned about the Lion being too frightening? What could happen to you if your play displeased the monarch at the time? The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, were once in danger of their lives when Queen Elizabeth I saw herself in the deposed monarch in Shakespeare’s play Richard II.

Act 3, Scene 1

(line 9) Bottom is concerned that their play is too violent. Can we relate to that today? Who in the audience is he most concerned about? What solution does he propose?

(line 46) During their rehearsal, Quince says that he hopes to have the moon shining on the night of their performance because “Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight.” Is it actually necessary for the moon to be out for the play to be believable? What devices did Shakespeare have available to him to set the scene (ie: Merchant 5, 1; Midsummer 3, 2, 190)?

(line 61) Quince also points out the need for a wall for the lovers to whisper through. What is their solution. How would you solve this issue?

(line 90) Flute speaks all his lines at once. In the 16th century, actors learned their lines from “sides” – papers that contained their lines only, and maybe a cue or two.

Act 5, Scene 1

(line 134) The mechanicals’ play begins with a Prologue. Where else have you seen a Prologue, and what is its function?

(line 179) “O, grim-looked night!…” the O encompasses all of the emotion of the line (ie: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”) What emotion is Bottom/Pyramus playing here with all of these many many O’s? This part is especially fun for the best over-actor in the class.

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

(line 260) Throughout the play, the married couples add their own comments and interjections. Live theatre includes a live audience with live reactions. In Elizabethan England, nobles attended plays as much to be seen as to see. Sometimes there were seats onstage for them to show off their latest finery, and there’s a legend that Queen Elizabeth I once crossed the stage mid-performance to greet someone. The groundlings had no problem voicing their reactions during the play, either. Have you ever experienced something like that today?

(line 291) Even more fun – bad rhymes and stage deaths for Pyramus and Thisbe! Did the audience enjoy the play?

All-told, this portion of the activity took about 45 minutes, and we had a wonderful group of 8th grade students acting it out for us! At the end, we asked them to share anything they would take away from this, one student said, “You really had to use your imagination back then – it was all about the words and the actor.”

Not a bad takeaway.

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Shakespeare’s England was not overseen by a democratic government. Monarchs ruled for life, and successors were chosen based on royal bloodlines or who won which war. Despite this, Shakespeare knew that the public’s perception of a monarch went a long way towards the success of their reign. He gave his characters the power of language to persuade and control others. Many of his characters are gifted rhetoricians – they use language and the power of their words to bring other people around to their side.

Notably:

Mark Antony – uses the power of rhetoric to turn a huge Roman mob against Brutus and Cassius.

Henry V – uses the power of speech to boost his small English army’s morale as they seige France’s much larger forces.

Richard III – uses the power of words to manipulate his court and to become king.

Iago – uses the power of language to manipulate Othello’s view of his wife and lieutenant Cassio.

Hamlet – uses the power of words to turn right and wrong actions around in his head until he decides what to do.

It’s interesting to see, too, how the Roman elections look in Shakespeare’s plays. Brother is pitted against brother in Act 1 Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus to win the seat of emperor  Coriolanus spends the first half of his play looking to win the popular vote after proving himself in war, and the people’s vote elects the Triumvirate of Marc Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus in the war against Brutus and Cassius following Julius Caesar’s death.

The election lights usually fall on the person best able to win the people with their words in these situations. (Though the people technically elected Titus after his success in war against the Goths and he puts in a good word for the former emperor’s eldest son Saturninus instead of taking seat himself.)

We’ve been sharing lesson plans on the power of persuasive speech on our shiny new Facebook Page today to explore these characters’ impact on popular and singular opinion. As a democratic nation, today eligible voters are using their individual voices to collectively elect the nation’s leader for the next four years. Were we won by words, words, words? How do our nation’s leaders compare to Shakespeare’s (both historical and literary)?

Comment below, or Like us on Facebook to tell us more!

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Shaking Hands with Shakespeare

Acting as the registrar for our local programs, it’s not surprising to me that most of the teachers who use our resources teach English, or are using our program for an English unit. Occasionally, though, I’ll get a call from a Social Studies or History teacher who plans to tie the program in to their unit on Elizabethan Life.

But this can go even further! You might remember one of our first Teacher to Teacher videos featuring Bob Harrison, in which he advocates for “Shakespeare Across the Curriculum,” and gives some examples of how to connect learning about Shakespeare and Elizabethan Life across many subjects and to students’ own life.

Specific plays lend themselves to cross-curricular study, and it’s really up to the teachers to figure out how best to collaborate on a unit. It can be difficult, especially with all of the guidelines for meeting standards and preparing for standardized tests. Crossing curricula, though, helps make the subjects more relevant, and makes the information stick.

This all comes to mind after seeing an article today about a 2009 performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Texas A&M University where the production was enhanced with robot “fairies” built by the school of engineering and in collaboration with the performance studies and computer science departments. These students and their professors were innovative and creative in their presentation of this play for a modern audience, and learned more about each other’s chosen areas of study in the process!

Are you planning any cross-curriculum lessons with Shakespeare this year? Let us know in the comments!

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The Anglophiles among you may have spent the morning watching (or streaming) the live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration. The reigning monarch of Britain has spent 60 years on the throne, and is still beloved and revered by her subjects.

Image from AFP/Getty Images

Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth (the first of that name), was one of the longest-reigning monarchs of her time. She spent 45 years as Queen, and while she may not have been always beloved by all, she was certainly a formidable leader. She led her countrymen into battle with the Spanish invaders, supported the arts, handled tough political and economical

decisions – and saw them through. She proved that women could and would be as competent on the throne as men, and paved the way for monarchs like Elizabeth II.

Though Queen Elizabeth I did not personally patronize Shakespeare’s company, they were often invited to play at court – and Shakespeare gave

her plenty of strong female characters to side with or contest. An old folkstory says she enjoyed his Falstaff so much in the Henry IV plays that she requested a comedy for Falstaff in which he falls in love. Shakespeare dutifully penned The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Queen Elizabeth II paid the Folger a visit in 1991, where she sat in for a day of student festival performances, and visited our rare books – including a look at the bible that once belonged to her predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I.

Congratulations on 60 years as Queen of England, Your Majesty. Long Live the Queen!

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Speak the speech, I pray you, … trippingly on the tongue,”  Hamlet’s advice to the players.

When teachers assign their students to perform a scene from a play by William Shakespeare, what should their students do to get ready?  How can teachers best support their students in preparing their scenes?  Steer them away from “translated” texts of the play, for starters.  Students can handle Shakespeare’s language.  Help them to understand the language. How can using a performance-based teaching approach help?  Performance-based teaching promotes getting students up and on their feet, speaking Shakespeare’s language out loud; it is a close reading of the text using intellectual, vocal, and physical exercises to make sense of it.

On March 6th, from 1-2 pm EST, teachers and their students from around the country will be able to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library without leaving their classrooms.  Experiencing Shakespeare is a free one-hour trip that will take students into the vault of the Library to see rare books and to talk with Dr. Michael Witmore, Director, about the treasures contained within it.  They’ll hear from scholar, Dr. Gail Kern Paster, about the ways scholars examine texts to look at language, watch students and actors engage Shakespeare’s text as they prepare to perform scenes, and they’ll have the opportunity submit their own performances of Shakespeare’s work to be included in the program.  In short, students and teachers will be involved in the intellectual, physical, and vocal exercises and activities they need to do in order to engage Shakespeare’s text and make meaning of it for themselves.

Join teachers and students from around the country on their journey to find out what they need to know to put Shakespeare’s language up on its feet in this hour-long electronic field trip.  Register by clicking here.

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